By PATRICK HUNTER
“I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.” (Nelson Mandela)
The overwhelming response to the transition of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was not unexpected. Back in June, when he was admitted to hospital and the word was that he was gravely ill, the vigil began. The world held its collective breath anticipating the inevitable. As I write this, leaders from all over the world are gathering in Johannesburg for the memorial service. Among them perhaps are those who still believe or consider Mandela a terrorist.
Many of the tributes to Mandela speak not only of his humility and the ability to make others feel at ease, the most consistent recognition was his demonstrated forgiveness.
I can only imagine the enormous internal discipline that he possessed to be able to survive 27 years of imprisonment, under what one can assume were despicable conditions, to emerge with his principles and determination intact and his anger restrained.
As I noted back then in June, I still have mixed feelings about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), one of the most significant markers of his presidency and leadership. How many of us would have survived the attempt to destroy us emotionally and spiritually, and emerge from that without anger and bitterness?
That, I guess, is why he is the icon he has become.
The TRC offered the opportunity for those who suffered at the hands of the White “leadership” to tell their stories, in graphic details, how they were treated. It also offered an opportunity to those in the White power structure, and their willing instruments, to tell the stories of how they were complicit in the genocidal conduct of the apartheid regime. They could and would do so without fear of reprisals.
What I didn’t see then was that the record of these atrocities would be there for posterity so that all would know, including generations to follow, the raw truth of the cruelties of what went on during the period of apartheid.
The stories and the reactions of the commissioners, including its chair, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who were brought to tears on hearing them, are on the public record.
Not having delved into the biography of the man, I am not sure to what extent he was influenced by Marcus Garvey. There is a similarity in their sustainability. But there is also a bit of similarity in tactics, albeit controversial.
Garvey attempted to establish a “working relationship” with the Ku Klux Klan, under the philosophical motive that they both wanted the same thing – the repatriation of people of African descent to the Continent. Mandela encouraged his supporters in the ANC to learn the language of his oppressors, even though many of them were opposed to doing so. It is that sense of, I guess, negotiating with the enemy.
Garvey advocated for the return en masse of Africans to the Continent. Mandela took the position – a concession, if you will – that the oppressors are there and it would be easier to negotiate with them than to try to expel them.
Of course, Mandela did not achieve the overthrow of apartheid on his own. After all, he was locked away for 27 years with very little opportunity to communicate to the outside world. Those who managed to transmit his messages, like his former wife, Winnie; those who took his message, and the message of the ANC, abroad to encourage support for the cause of freedom, like Oliver Tambo, and hundreds more are, and should be, lauded in the singular figure of Mandela. And they are.
The additional point that bears mentioning is that these often nameless supporters should be credited for the discipline and loyalty they lived by to maintain the struggle with relative unity. It doesn’t mean that they did not believe or entertain different tactics designed to achieve their goal. But somehow, the ANC and its followers managed to remain as the strongest force to propel South Africa towards the end of apartheid. And they maintained that allegiance to Mandela, in spite of his imprisonment.
Since Mandela’s transition, the world “leaders” have been very effusive about his leadership qualities and his struggle for justice for his people. One always hope that these very leaders would reflect on what qualities they, or the rest of the world, admire about Mandela and what they could do, or what they could emulate, to reflect that admiration. For that, I guess, the best advice would be not to hold our breath.
We need these icons like Garvey, like Malcolm X, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mandela – and so many others. They provide a physical and spiritual guidepost of the work that has been done so far, and the work we must still do as people of African descent. There is, unfortunately, a tendency to wait for or to seek out the replacement leader who would take us the next step. The problem with that is we are often deluded by the pretenders and we are left as a chicken that has been decapitated.
So, it is up to us to, yes, celebrate Mandela for his example and his leadership and accomplishments. But do not allow ourselves to be fooled by the words of admiration that will have been uttered by those who prolong versions of discrimination and oppression.